Alex Neil rotated his squad throughout the hectic festive period and this did not change when he took Preston to Cardiff on Friday evening before the Sky television cameras.
Greg Cunningham was given his first start since he was ruled out through injury in August. Clarke played on the opposite flank and it was good to see that the long term absentees are now well and truly back.
Preston had much of the possession without being threatening. It seems a recuring theme that up unti the final third Preston look a good outfit but they miss that clinical edge.
Cardiff rarely threatened but Preston managed to nick a victory as Clarke headed in as the home side failed to clear a corner. There was no time for Cardiff to come back.
Preston then made changes for the home match against Middlesbrough with Woods coming in at left back to replace Cunningham. Johnson played alongside Pearson whilst Harrop and Robinson were given advanced roles.
The visitors had recently appointed Tony Pulis and it was clear that there had been a distinct change of emphasis in their play. One man was left alone up front whilst Middlesbrough played with two solid banks relying upon set pieces. It wasn't pretty but it was effective.
Middlesbrough took the lead after poor defensive play from Preston. A corner was whipped in and Ayala headed home at the back post. Simple but effective.
The goal spurred Preston into life. Almost straight from the kick off the ball was played down the right and a curling cross found Robinson at the back post who deaded across the keeper into the net.
Preston then took the lead through Hugill and were well on top. They were playing good football and should have extended the lead when Barkhuizen, from inside the six yard box, headed against the bar instead of into he opennet.
Middlesbrough came back into the game in the second half. Howson threatened to shoot but dummied throwing two defenders the wrong way. He turned and curled a shot home past Maxwell from the edge of the box.
The visitors then took the lead again from a corner. Preston will be disappointed but for a second time Ayala was allowed to win a header from a set piece to score.
Preston's unbeaten run ended and they will be disappointed given that they had the upper hand against a Middlesbrough side who will invest in January and have leapfrogged Preston in the table.
The FA Cup game will now come as a welcome distraction as a number of players will be rested before the league programme resumes in a couple of weeks.